Living

Born to Kentucky political royalty, Erin Chandler recalls a bumpy life

Erin Chandler, granddaughter of former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, at a family cabin in Versailles.
Erin Chandler, granddaughter of former Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler, at a family cabin in Versailles. palcala@herald-leader.com

Erin Chandler has lived a life with many advantages, yet somehow heartbreak crept in anyway.

The loss defined her as a person, gave her insight as an actress and writer.

The granddaughter of former Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler and his wife Mildred, one of two children of Las Vegas casino executive Dan Chandler and his strikingly beautiful wife Lynne, Erin led a life that from the beginning was tinged with both privilege and misery.

On its periphery lay substance abuse, an unstable brother, a father who once had to move his children in the dark of night to escape the wrath of a money lender, and a parental divorce that left her in the middle of Lubbock, Texas, a teen behaving badly.

She remembers being picked up by stretch limos as a child and babysat by a rotating series of employees and young women associated with her father. Entertainers dot the pictures on her walls: Willie Nelson, teen hearthrob Bobby Sherman, Rosemary Clooney. Donny Osmond once held Erin Chandler’s hand while he sang, “Go Away Little Girl.”

“We had our heyday when I was 12,” Chandler said, sitting on a chair in the eclectic spread of her kitchen in her home near Woodford County High School, which is stuffed with books and art.

“That’s why I’m not so into doing it anymore.”

Now 52 and living in “The Cabin,” a family residence in Versailles, Chandler has produced first a play and now a book about her turbulent life with her father and brother, Joseph Daniel “Dan” Chandler. Both works are called “June Bug Versus Hurricane,” after a lyric by Lucinda Williams: “Too cool to be forgotten, hey hey, too cool to be forgotten/June bug versus hurricane.”

“Our entire family dynamic was built around Chan,” Chandler said of her brother.

The book, available in Lexington at Wild Fig Books and Mulberry & Lime, unfolds as a series of memories in vignette form from different periods in Chandler’s life — from her childhood in a peripatetic family where the address might be anywhere from Versailles to Las Vegas to Miami to Lubbock, Texas, but the emotional center was always Erin’s relationship with her father Dan and adored older brother Chan.

Her cousins include former U.S. Congressman Ben Chandler. One of the anecdotes in the book recounts the night the family accompanied Ben Chandler as he won the Democratic nomination for Kentucky governor.

Erin Chandler attended the University of Kentucky for a year before switching to Pepperdine University for three years and then returning to graduate from UK, where she also got a master’s degree in theater in 2012.

By then she had already had an acting career, which was a tonic to the constant turmoil of her family life. She was a California-based actress with success in the theater, although she also got some work in films and television. “The only way I could really be what was inside of me was when I was acting.”

During an interview in the kitchen of “The Cabin,” she produces a note from 1992 from Chan to his father Dan in which he calls his father his best friend. Then, in a fan formation around the electric stove burners, she places Las Vegas newspaper articles about how Dan Chandler doggedly but unsuccessfully fought to have his son’s death in 1993 declared an accident rather than a suicide.

The young woman Chan Chandler was with that last night said that he had been waving a gun around, but she thought that he had emptied it of all ammunition. She was surprised when he pulled the trigger and shot himself.

Both father and son were intense personalities, Erin Chandler said. Chan would today possibly be diagnosed as bipolar, she said, but while alive he self-medicated and then went through a chain of failed attempts at rehabilitation.

“My mom and I say we are survivors of these two giant personalities that we loved,” Chandler said.

She moves a bit hesitantly around her home, having had both hips replaced recently. Also recently she received her MFA from Spalding University, and following jaunts to promote the book in California, North Carolina and in Berea and Frankfort, she will be looking for a job come late July. She would like to teach literature or theater or play writing.

A planner, Dan Chandler, who died in 2004, left behind a document from years before his death telling how he would like his funeral conducted. It mentioned basketball coach Rick Pitino, who wound up delivering his eulogy and serving as a pallbearer.

The late Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards described Dan Chandler this way: “I like Kentucky originals, people like Dan who don’t choose a persona but are the way they are because they just can’t be any other way.”

Erin Chandler is also an original. She still carries herself as if moving on the stage, dressed in a sleeveless rust-colored two-piece pantsuit with a cowl neck, surveying the ruins of the great pool where Happy Chandler once posed with his children.

While she wants to teach, she said, “Mostly I would love to just study with other people, great works of literature.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

Erin Chandler will read and sign her book “June Bug Versus Hurricane,” at Robie Books in Berea at 6 p.m. July 28..

Excerpt

“My Kentucky isn’t the Kentucky of rolling hills and horse farms. I’m the product of a political family. ... What Chan and I experienced was truly idyllic in the beginning. There was a sense of royalty, a constant, ‘Remember who you are’ from my dad. ‘You’re a Chandler,’ he told us.

“My grandfather, Albert Benjamin ‘Happy’ Chandler, was two-time governor of Kentucky and U.S. Senator. He was the baseball commissioner who put Jackie Robinson in the big leagues and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was on the cover of Time magazine with his fist up. This is the legacy we inherited. This is the legacy we had the honor of inhabiting, or revering and oftentimes desecrating.”

From “June Bug Versus Hurricane,” a memoir by Erin Chandler (Rabbit House Press, $16.03)

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